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Walpurgis Nacht

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It was, oddly, the click of his boot heels that first drew Mila's attention to the stranger. Such a small, strange thing to notice, maybe, but it had been more than just her. The village had fallen into a hushed pall of dread as dusk drew in, knowing what was coming this night, and through that stillness the slow, sharp precision of his footsteps had seemed to ring very loudly indeed. He had paced his way into the square with deliberation, skillfully avoiding the rats that ran beneath his feet, and they had all of them turned to look at him.

And then to stare, because while the sound of his steps had drawn their notice, the sight of his clothes more than kept it.

He looked like a woodcut of some earlier time, Mila thought distantly. A medieval troubadour, a phantom stepped through time from centuries gone by. His coat was red and yellow, sewn in patches, with long belled sleeves that swung around him. His hair was long and fair, which went oddly with his dark skin, prominent where his fingers fretted against the bone-pale flute that hung about his neck. His eyes, when they scythed across her, were sharp and blue, and they frightened her. She wasn't sure why. There was something in him, something more than his strange attire, that froze her to the marrow.

It was foolishness, perhaps. A fearful fever of the mind, given all that had happened these last few months. She was seeing darkness everywhere, signs of lurking horror in the most mundane of things. He didn't look like them. He looked strange, yes, but not like that.

He was probably only a performer, nothing more than the musician he seemed to be, dressed from times gone by to suit some nobleman's whim. There was more than one in the area who liked to arrange such things, performances designed to remind those around them of what historic bloodline they possessed. With all the feasts and celebrations of Walpurgis Nacht upon them this evening, this man was likely just some lost minstrel, about to be cheated of his fee by an ill-fated sense of direction.

Cheated of his fee, she thought, and maybe worse, if he didn't leave the village soon. If he was still in this square when the summons from the castle arrived after dusk ...

The stranger stopped in the centre of their gathering, those blue eyes sweeping all around him, a placid, pensive expression on that fine-boned face. He was studying them. Mila wasn't entirely sure what he was seeing. They must have been a dreadful sight, in truth, standing among the rats and vermin of the square, every face white and drawn with terror. He didn't seem to notice, though. He looked only curious, mildly interested, and he couldn't afford to be. Not here, and not now. He couldn't afford to become entangled here.

They'd made their own bed, here in this village, letting that thing in the castle take hold of them this way. This man was innocent of that. He didn't deserve to die for them.

Mila shook herself, brushing aside the shock of his appearance well before anyone else, and made herself hurry towards him. His gaze swung to her immediately as she moved, along with everyone else's. The whole village stared at her as she broke their stunned stillness. She didn't care. He couldn't be allowed to stay. She had to get him out, and if no-one else would move, then she would do it for them.

"Good evening," he said softly, when she drew abreast of him. He had a small smile on his lips, a sly, secret-looking thing. "Your town seems troubled tonight. Fear in the air and rats beneath the feet. It's been some years since last I stumbled on so worrisome a scene."

He didn't look worried, she noted. There was still nothing but curiosity on his face. He spoke of fear as an idle observation, one that seemed to trouble him not at all. It sent foreboding leaping through her, that thrill of fear and suspicion down her spine once again. It couldn't matter, though. Frightening or not, he was still innocent, and that had to be her first concern.

"You need to leave," she told him, low and fierce as she made herself meet his gaze. She reached up, almost as if to physically push him backwards, before she caught herself. "I'm sorry, I really am, but you need to leave. At once. Get out of here, sir, and quickly."

He blinked placidly. "Oh?" he said, with only a lilting note of amused interest. "Are my kind not welcome here, then?"

Mila flushed and shook her head, stammering. "No, it's not ... that's not it," she said, ashamed but desperate. "You have to understand, it's not safe here. You have to leave. Now, sir, before dusk falls. You have to get out of this town before--"

Before the bell tolled, she'd meant to say, but it spoke for itself before she'd managed. It rang out, a loud, demanding toll, and terrified silence fell in its wake even more thickly than before. This was no church bell. It struck no god-given hour. It rang from the rise, instead, from the castle that glowered there, and it rang for the hour of sunset. It rang for nightfall, and the moment when those creatures on the hill came free to lay their demands on the village once more. At the sound of it, Mila let out a little cry, and fell silent to stare up at him in mute and guilt-stricken horror.

For his part, the stranger only turned to look curiously up to the top of the twilight cliff above the village, and the wicked lights now blooming on what moments ago had seemed only ruins.

It had been called the Kingsburg once, their castle. It was said that it was the great hunting palace of kings, once upon a time, when living kings still hunted in the Harz. Whether that was true or not, it had been a very long time ago. No king had graced those crumbling halls for hundreds of years, and the castle was no longer its former self. The old keep had been content to moulder gently on the hill, the forest closing in around it and its walls tumbling slowly to rot and ruin above them, all but forgotten by the village and by everyone else as well.

Until she came. The lady all in red, with her skin like porcelain, and her ruby lips, and her white, white teeth. She'd come in the depths of winter, calling herself a queen, fit to give life once more to the palaces of kings. She'd come, and she'd lured the village with pretty words and promised riches. They'd thought her no more than some noblewoman playing a game. If she wanted to spend her money and the coldest months of the year sitting up in a crumbling ruin with her retinue, they'd been happy to let her. At first. Oh, at first.

A queen, she called herself, a queen and her hungry court. And they were hungry, more so than anyone had at first understood. The rats were the least of it, though they had come in their swarms, drawn to the Lady's unholy aura. There were things in that castle now that made rats look handsome, though you couldn't tell to look at it. It shone in the twilight these days, all the stronger once the sun had set. The forest had been cleared around the old keep, no more a tiny crumbling ruin but a castle, strong and proud. It glowed with torchlight, dressed in her shadows and her illusions, and looked so much like a palace once again.

It was inviting, if you didn't know what dwelt inside it. It looked warm and welcoming enough to lure an unwary traveller into her grasp. That was half the purpose. The rest, Mila thought, was simply that the Red Lady liked to pretend, to think that she was a real queen with a real palace, instead of a monstrosity holding court inside a mouldering pile of ancient rocks.

Oh. Oh, and she'd kill Mila if she could hear that thought. She'd kill them all for it, those that she wasn't planning to kill already. Careful, careful. Good god, girl, haven't you learned that well enough by now?

"Ah," the man beside her said suddenly, drawing her attention back to him once again. He looked up at their castle, then down at the vermin at his feet, and that sly little smile crept across his face once again. "I understand. I had thought 'twas rats that plagued you. I see now 'tis leeches instead, hmm?"

Mila took a desperate breath. "You still have time," she said, more quietly now. There were ears to listen, now, beneath the Red Lady's waking thrall. "Her call to us won't go out for another few minutes yet, and not all of us are completely beneath her thrall. If you run now, before she summons us and her people come, then you might have a chance."

Not much of one. The mountains loomed all around them, with the greatest of them, the Brocken itself and its horrors, not so far away. Alone, in the Harz, on Walpurgis Nacht, he'd have only a very slender chance indeed.

It would be a better one, though, than what waited here.

He turned from the castle to look at her, then, an odd expression on his face. His head tilted like a bird's, those slim fingers playing over the pale wood of his flute. If it was wood, she thought suddenly. It looked so pale and bonelike now, with only the torchlight to see it by.

"You would save me?" he asked, watching her slyly. She didn't understand the expression on his face. "Well then. That is promising. And I should go. I have an appointment tonight that I cannot miss. A midnight revel, for Walpurgis Nacht. It would go ill to disappoint its master. And yet ... But perhaps your leech will be reasonable, hmm? Perhaps she will let a poor musician go on his way. Even she must understand that this night is not to be interfered with."

"I don't think so," Mila whispered, but it hardly mattered either way. He'd left it too late. Shadows flitted down the cliff face beneath the castle, standing across the river to watch them with eerie eyes in shapeless faces and beckon with pale fingers for them to come. The Lady was impatient tonight. Mila could see the blankness already creeping over the faces around her. Not all of them. Some of them, like her, had never fallen very far beneath the thrall. It wouldn't be enough to save them. Not against all the rest of the village combined. Whatever the Lady had planned for this night, none of them now would escape it.

The stranger followed her gaze, watching the thrall settle with an almost professional curiosity. He noted the few still-lively faces, tight with fear but without the blankness of the others. When he turned to her, she saw him note her own wakefulness as well. It seemed to please him, a little. She wasn't entirely sure why.

"Well then," he said, holding out his arm to her with a gallant air. "It seems we must test your leech's reason after all. Shall we, my dear?"

Leech, he said. Out loud, and within hearing of all within her thrall. The blank faces turned towards them, and Mila nearly moaned in terrified annoyance. God, could he not have kept his tongue that little longer? Little hope he had now that the Red Lady would spare him, and Mila along with him. Though, in truth, there'd been little enough to start with. Tonight was to be a great celebration, and they all knew that the Lady had tired of those who had tried to resist her. She meant to kill them, and what better night than this? In all likelihood, this had always been the night Mila had been meant to die. And if that was so ...

She took a deep breath, raised her chin so as to look as unafraid as possible, and quietly and defiantly linked her arm with the stranger's as they joined the procession that curled around the base of the hill, heading across the river for the other side and the road up to the Kingsburg. If he died tonight for his insolence, then so would she, and so be it. It was about time someone was rude to that monstrosity's face, even if their death was the only result.

"Don't look so dreary," her companion whispered. He leaned teasingly over her arm, ignoring the way they were herded into the centre of the grim column by those deepest in her thrall. "Perhaps if she lets me go, she will let you come with me. I'll be sure to ask for it, if you like."

Mila wrestled back hysteria. "She will kill you," she whispered back, vehemently. "You won't be asking for anything. But yes, I suppose, feel free to ask for my life if you have the chance. If you want to waste time on folly, you may as well waste it properly."

He laughed, a bright tinkle of sound that sounded impossibly, terribly wrong in this silent parade. Faces turned to look at them, the Lady's red light in their blank eyes, and Mila shuddered. The stranger patted her arm, that awful smile of his playing cheerfully about his lips.

"I shall, then," he promised gaily. "One must always pay their debts, you know. If you will try to save me, of course I must return the favour. I will speak with our leech on your behalf."

And get her killed all the faster, Mila thought, but she was giddy now herself. His lightness was infectious, or perhaps it was only that her fear had reached its apex and become transformed. She found herself striding along beside him in almost sprightly fashion, arm-in-arm on the grim, torchlit road around the hill, to the great green sward before the Kingsburg and the unholy Lady that awaited them there. She didn't even know him, yet Mila found herself almost lighthearted as she walked beside him on the road to her death.

That cheer was dampened, though, as they came within sight of the castle. It was truly transformed. Twin rows of small fires made a path up the grass towards the keep, with two great bonfires laid just in front of it for Walpurgis Nacht. The red-lit keep loomed behind them, with the greater and more terrible bulk of the Brocken visible against deepening night behind it.

And in front of the castle, arrayed on a raised platform between the fires, sat the Red Lady and her court, coldly waiting for them to arrive.

The villagers trooped into the space between the smaller fires, milling uncertainly as her creatures flitted back to their mistress, and the bulk of the spell fell away from them. Mila clenched her jaw against the low moan of horror that rose from those around her, her neighbours awakened once more to their fate. She clenched it harder still for the sight of some on the outskirts of the crowd, not fearful at all, but torn between guilt and anticipation. Those ones had sold themselves to the Lady in truth, in hopes of rewards or simply being spared, and she had no love for them at all. She had more for a man whose name she didn't even know.

Although, as said man returned her arm to her with a little pat and stepped blithely forward through the crowd, intent on drawing the Lady's attention, she wasn't entirely sure how much she loved him either.

"My Lady!" he called, drawing to a stop just before the platform that held her 'throne'. "I understand you are the Mistress of this revel. Is this true?"

The Red Lady stared down at him in icy disdain. God, Mila hated her. She hated the sight of her, the pale perfection that disguised the monstrosity beneath. White and red, like some old fairytale. Skin pale as snow, and lips red as blood. But not her blood. No. The blood of everyone else around her, instead. Leech, the stranger had called her. Perhaps it was a better word, a lower and more accurate word, than the other.

Vampire. Undead. The thing they had invited into their midst, and paid the price for it now.

The stranger paid no mind to the disdain. He only looked brightly, calmly up at her, seemingly ignorant of the monsters that clustered close around her, her court as they examined him with hungry curiosity. He did not bow his head, he did not lose his smile, he did not, in any way, look afraid. Mila could see even from here how that angered the Lady.

"... You are not one of my subjects," she said, soft and sibilant with anger. "Who are you, sir, and how came you here?"

The stranger laughed, and spread his hands with their belled sleeves in a parody of innocent confusion. Mila stared at him, wondering if he deliberately calculated to offend. "I am but a humble piper, my Lady," he said. "I wandered here by chance on the road to another engagement. You must forgive me, I had not realised there was to be a revel here. If I had, I might have offered my services. Alas, I fear I am already engaged, and must beg leave to depart your company. I must be elsewhere by midnight, you understand."

He did not mention Mila yet, as he had promised, but in the widening hush that followed that pronouncement, Mila was almost grateful for that. The Lady went so still and so pale in her fury that for a moment she almost looked like the corpse she truly was, a carved, lifeless thing upon her throne, even her red lips grown pale in anger. Her red eyes sparkled with malice in the firelight, and she stood after a moment to glare down at him, her motions stiff and calm and inhumanly precise. Drawn to her full height, her evil seemed to roll from her in waves.

"Leave?" she said, staring down at his blithe, upturned face. "Why should you wish to leave, sir? There will no finer celebration in all these mountains tonight. Stay, rather. Entertain my court. I demand it."

The stranger tilted his head once more, that birdlike gesture from the square. He straightened himself up from his wide, conciliatory stance, and drew up his hands to flutter thoughtfully before his chest. Or perhaps, Mila thought, before his flute.

"I cannot," he said, and it was blunt now. It was as icy in its turn as the corpse in front of him. "Forgive me, my lady, but I am promised elsewhere. You must let me pass. To waylay me, on this night of all nights, is not a wise decision."

The Red Lady stepped down from her platform in answer to that. She glided towards him, so smoothly that she looked to be floating over the grass more than walking. She drew abreast of him, and laid a bloodless hand on his arm with a force Mila knew could turn bruising, turn breaking, within seconds. She looked up into the stranger's face, being slightly smaller than him, and spread those ruby lips to bare those snow-white teeth. No-one there, no living thing on the green sward beneath the Kingsburg, would have called that thing a smile.

"Play for us," the vampire said, while her hand tightened about his arm. He didn't flinch, that Mila could see, so she did it for him. "I am Queen in these lands, oh humble piper, and if I ask that you should stay, you shall stay. Perhaps if you play well enough, if you gift us with something exquisite, then I shall let you leave by morning unscathed. Fail to please me, however, and you shall not even see your precious midnight. Do you understand?"

He looked down at her, the stranger, and something that was not quite a smile flitted across his face in turn. He bowed his head a little, his fine, pale hair almost tracing the Lady's cheek, and then he nodded.

"You are well understood," he said softly. "Very well, my Lady. I shall play for you, as you have asked."

He straightened once more, drawing his arm gently from her grasp and taking the smallest step backwards. The Lady let him go. From the odd look on her face, Mila wasn't entirely sure she'd meant to. There was something about him now, an aura not unlike the Lady's own. Or no. It was not evil, not as hers was. But it was ... unnatural, perhaps. It was strange, at the very least. Mila felt again that thrill of fear, a foreboding suddenly much clearer and more terrible than before. He moved backwards until he stood just behind the bonfires, leaving the space between them for the Lady, with the villagers shielded at his back. He took his flute from around his neck, and held it gently in his hand.

"A warning, though," he said, meeting her red eyes with his icy blue, his instrument poised in his hand. "My services are not free, your Majesty, and my debts are always paid. I have a meeting on the Brocken at midnight, and I shall attend it. Never fear, however. You shall have your tune first, and you shall pay for it in full."

Midnight on the ... Oh god. Mila raised a hand to her mouth, even as he raised his flute to his lips, gasping in sudden, horrified understanding. The Brocken, the Brocken, on Walpurgis Nacht. Who on earth was this creature, to play for the Devil's Sabbath?

Someone, she had a sudden terror, too dangerous even for a vampire to challenge.

The first notes from the pipe were nothing anyone had expected. They were bright, skirling things, like the beginnings of a dance, and as they sounded everyone stared at their maker in shock. The piper ignored them, ignored all except the instrument in his hands, the holes across which his fingers flew and danced, and the sound that sprung forth in answer to them. He swayed in the firelight, a narrow figure all in red and yellow, his belled sleeves sweeping the air around him. He looked ... oh, he looked ...

And then it didn't matter how he looked. Nothing mattered, nothing in all the world, except the sound of the flute, and figures suddenly moving in the red light between the fires.

The Red Lady was dancing. They all were, all the vampires, all the foul creatures that had laid their claim upon this place. First one foot, moved all unwilling, then the next. The body, turning in the firelight. The arms, arcing through the air. They moved, not with inhuman grace but stiff and terrified, with cries of fury and confusion, to the sound of the piper's music. They moved to it, like terrible marionettes, and began to dance to the piper's tune.

Mila stared at them. She couldn't move, she couldn't look away. It wasn't even fear, she couldn't move. She was frozen stiff by the sound of the music, unable to do anything but watch as the notes came faster and faster, as the Lady spun wider and wider, as the entire evil court danced its grisly dance between the fires. The music soared, and the vampires leaped. The music skirled, and the vampires spun. The music pranced in circles, and the vampires echoed it, circling wider and wider, out and around the bonfires now, their white faces paler than bone in the firelight. They moved ever closer to the flames, dipped and spun almost into their embrace, and Mila was not the only one who understood it then, who knew where the dance was meant to end, and what the price for it would be.

The realisation seemed to shatter something, at least for Mila. It broke some grip that the music had upon her, lessened its thrall until it was no more effective than the Lady's had ever been upon her, and she turned her head to see the stranger once again. She turned, and found him watching her, ignoring his victims as they danced ever closer to oblivion, those fierce blue eyes fixed instead upon her.

She knew him. He knew it, and so did she. She recognised him, at long last, from those tales they told to the north, down along the banks of the Weser river. The strange man with his ancient clothes, the medieval troubadour that had no care for time. The Pied Piper, with his magic pipe, who must always, always be paid.

And who in turn, she thought, always paid his own debts. If you will try to save me, of course I must return the favour. The Lady had never had a chance. No-one could have.

The first of the screams started, as two of the vampires leapt not over but into one of the bonfires. They caught alight like candles, as though they kept wicks in their clothes, but they did not stop dancing. The music caught them onwards, whirled them out of that fire and on to the next, and behind them the next pair of monsters leapt into the flames. And on, and on, even the Red Lady, last of all and screaming in fury before she ever reached the fire. They were danced into the bonfires, one and all, and then they danced onwards, still burning, fire-sprites spun screaming across the green sward beneath the Kingsburg. Mila closed her eyes. She caught her hands to her face in horror, and to block out of the stench of their burning. Nothing, though, could block out the screaming.

And even behind her eyelids, in the red-stained darkness behind closed eyes, she thought she could see him still. The dark, fair-haired man, his blue eyes watching her from across the bone-pale line of his flute. The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and perhaps, henceforth, of Kingsburg.

The screaming died, soon. She couldn't tell how long, perhaps hours, perhaps only minutes. The silence crept back among them, save for the now-quieter sound of the pipe, and Mila opened her eyes again. She blinked away phantom images, and took in the scene before her.

It was the castle she noticed first. It shouldn't have been. There were smouldering, blackened figures still tracing faltering, deathly steps before it. Perhaps she didn't want to focus on them. So it was to the castle she looked, and what she saw ... was only a ruin once more. An old, round keep, abandoned for long centuries, crumbling slowly and gently away. The glamour was gone from it, illusion stripped away, and Mila looked instinctively for the Lady to see why. She couldn't find her, though. She couldn't tell which charred figure had once been the lady all in red, and which had once been the servants. They were all the same.

They were all crumbled, even as she watched them, into ash and dust once more. While the music swirled a close, the sprightly dance almost mournful in its dying moments, those terrible figures crumbled all at once and were blown out beyond the Kingsburg by the wind, over the waters of the rivers at the base of the cliff, into the true night where the Brocken loomed so patiently in the distance.

So it was done, she thought hollowly. So the price for a tune had been paid.

No-one moved for a long moment after the music stopped. Perhaps they couldn't yet, still froze by its thrall. Perhaps they were simply afraid to, with too many nightmares having been revealed all at once. Walpurgis Nacht. Yes. This had been Walpurgis Nacht in truth. And it was not over yet.

She made herself move. As she had done an hour earlier, in the village square beneath them, Mila forced herself out of the pall of terror, and made herself turn to the stranger in their midst. Catching his eyes, seeing the placid, pensive expression on his face once more, she made herself move to the Piper's side once more.

He did not speak this time, as she drew abreast. He only looked at her, his pipe still cradled in his hand, his fine hair drifting gently about his face. He watched her as she stood shaking before him, and waited for whatever she might have to say.

"... Thank you," she managed, after a very long moment. Something shuttered in his eyes, an expression almost like surprise, but she pressed on without trying to grasp it. She trembled, shaking all over, but she knew when a service had been rendered. He had been innocent. Of the crimes of this village at least, if nothing else. He'd offered his service in exchange for hers, and that deserved recognition. "For my life. For saving us. I thank you."

He blinked, tucking his pipe against his side, hiding it within the folds of his sleeve. He seemed nonplussed, such as he hadn't been thus far, even when faced with monsters. Mila would have smiled at that, if she had not still been so terrified, and so blindly relieved.

"Are we ..." she started, still stammering slightly. She coughed, and began again. "That is. Do we owe you anything? You saved more than me. Is anything owed for it?"

He pursed his lips thoughtfully, with again that birdlike tilt of his head. He watched her, something entirely nameless glittering in his eyes.

"If there were," he said, very quietly, "would you pay it?"

He didn't mean the village, she thought. This wasn't about them. He looked only at her, and Mila remembered more of his story suddenly. She remembered why he had taken his prices by force. Because the first, though promised, had not been paid. Because despite his efforts, he had been considered too humble, too unimportant, too strange, to be worth keeping a promise to. He had asked for a fair payment, and been denied.

What would be a fair payment for the lives of a whole village, she wondered. What could one person pay that would be worth that? But it didn't matter, really. He had not been asked to save them all, and he had done it anyway. What kind of person could ignore that, regardless of the price to be paid?

So she looked him in the eye, and she straightened her spine with all the dignity that remained to her, and she nodded. "I will," she said. "Only ask it, and I will."

A breath went out of him. He sighed happily, his shoulders releasing a tension she had not noticed, and he smiled at her once more. Not the sly thing of before, nor the terrible thing he had offered the Lady. It was a simple smile, this one. It was almost human.

"There is nothing," he said, waving his flute dismissively through the air. His voice had an odd sing-song quality to it, a childish delight. "The price was theirs for my delay. There's nothing left for you to pay." He chuckled faintly, and reached out to lay his hand on her shoulder. "It is not often a mortal will risk themselves for my sake. No. All debts are cleared between us, my gallant champion. You have my thanks in turn."

Mila shook her head, an odd, giddy impulse running through her. "Your efforts were rather more successful than mine," she noted, not quite contrarily, and he really did laugh then. The bright tinkle of it sounded much better here than it had on the grim road below.

"Even so," he said, shaking his head. "I must be off now, my dear. I have that appointment to attend, and the hour of midnight grows ever closer. The vermin shall not trouble you again, though I would suggest leaving the ruin well alone henceforth. Stones do not forget. Let them moulder in peace."

"I doubt any of us will have trouble with that," she said, but she reached out before he could move, catching his hand as it withdrew from her shoulder. "You won't pass this way again, will you? Not while I ... Not for a very long time. I'm right, aren't I?"

He tilted his head, his hand warm in hers. "Such is the way of it," he agreed softly. "I have to go. They are impatient on the Brocken, you know. Walpurgis Nacht must not be waylaid, and it is a tricky night to be wandering the Harz. Much as you told me at the beginning, my dear, I'm afraid I really must be going."

Mila drew a breath, slow and shaking, and nodded. She released him. He was an odd thing to cling to, anyway. As fierce and as terrible as anything in these mountains, where even the Devil came a-hunting at times. But maybe that was why. Maybe it was a comfort, when the night was at its darkest, to have such a perfectly terrible thing by your side.

"Thank you for your help," she said again, vaguely amused by the absurdity of it. She looked up at him, and smiled shakily. "I will remember it, even if no-one else does. I ... Well. Thank you."

He bowed low before her, a wide sweep of his sleeves, and spun in place even in the midst of the motion. He turned, striding off. Not back down the road, not down into the village. He strode towards the castle instead, and the distant looming of the Brocken beyond it, and when he reached the stones at the ruin's base, he rapped upon them with one hand and they opened grudgingly before him. He turned once more, a strange figure in the firelight, and gifted her with one last smile before he stepped into that sudden crack, and vanished into the stone.

He could do that, she remembered giddily. That had been in the story too. He could walk into a mountain, into a hole that had never been there before and would never be there again, and emerge half a world away. He didn't have so far to go tonight, though. The Brocken wasn't so far away at all.

And neither, Mila thought as she shook herself once again, was midnight. Midnight on Walpurgis Nacht, when all the Harz was alive with ancient things. Not the time to be caught between bonfires on a haunted hill, where only moments before unholy things had met their end. It was time to head back down to the village, she thought. It was time to gather what was left of their town, and head home to hide for the night, and remember what it was to be alive. It would be a poor payment for a piper, to die so soon after he'd saved their lives.

And to the Piper, of all creatures, it was never wise to offer poor payment.